The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, says Ambassador Khalilzad has been nominated to what he calls "one of the most consequential ambassadorships in American history.”
"American credibility, progress in war on terrorism, relationship with our allies and the future of the Middle East depend on a positive outcome in Iraq,” Mr. Lugar said. “What happens there will determine whether we can begin to redirect the Middle East toward a more productive and peaceful future beyond the grip of terrorist influences."
Senator Lugar praised Ambassador Khalilzad's qualifications for the post, noting he most recently served as ambassador to Afghanistan. During his tenure, Afghanistan held elections and approved a new constitution.
Iraq is to draft a constitution by August 15 and organize a referendum scheduled for October 15. National elections for a permanent government are to follow on December 15 of this year.
Senator Lugar said curbing the insurgency would be key to a successful transition:
"The security thing is just paramount,” he added. “The debate is not going to be high quality on the constitution if people are being shot and bombed in the process."
For his part Ambassador Khalilzad says if confirmed, he would work to improve public diplomacy in the region.
"What we need to do is a better job of explaining our goals: an Iraq that is self-reliant and an Iraq that is successful,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “We want Iraq for the Iraqis and Iraq that works for the Iraqi people."
He sought to dispel notions about U.S. intentions that he says remain in the minds of many in the Middle East:
"There is no U.S. plan for permanent military bases in Iraq or plans for usurping Iraqi resources," he added.
Senate Democrats used the hearing to criticize the Bush administration's handling of Iraq.
Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the committee, said the administration never sent enough U.S. troops to Iraq to handle the insurgency adequately and rapidly train Iraqi troops.
"My patience is running out,” said Mr. Biden. “I am not sure I could, in good faith, a year from now if things are not drastically different, continue to support American troops being in Iraq."
Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, expressed concern about reports of mismanagement of U.S. reconstruction funds.
"The budget for reconstruction is $20 billion, which when you tell my constituents is more than the entire foreign aid budget for the rest of the world, and you are only talking about the reconstruction budget in Iraq, this is something where accountability is desperately needed to the American taxpayer,” said Mr. Feingold.
Ambassador Khalilzad responded to the Democrats' concerns, saying that, if confirmed, he would work with U.S. and Iraqi personnel to try to improve the training of Iraqi troops and he said he would see to it that reconstruction money was spent appropriately.
If confirmed, Ambassador Khalilzad would succeed John Negroponte, who was named the new Director of National Intelligence.